Monday, June 30, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 20

When I was getting ready to do this post, I went to check where I had left off in the adventures of Life of St. Martin and was surprised (and not surprised) to find that I haven't translated anything since late March. So, to pick up the thread, we've finished a section dealing with two imperial officials and the miracles associated with them. Today, we continue with St. Martin's encounter with the temporarily successful usurper, Maximus.


(1) So that I may add less important matters to such important ones- although as is nature of our times in which all things are now perverted and corrupted, it is almost extraordinary that priestly constancy did not yield to royal flattery-when many bishops from different parts of the world had come to meet the emperor Maximus, a man of fierce character, who had been raised up by victory in civil wars and the foul flattery of all around the emperor was noticed and priestly dignity subjected by the degenerate inconstancy of royal clientele, in Martin alone did apostolic authority remain. (2) For, if it was necessary for him to petition the king for someone, he gave orders rather than asking. Although he was asked often as a guest, he refused, saying that he could not share the table of one who, out of two emperors, drove out one from their realm and the other from his life. (3) Later, when Maximus claimed that he did not take up power by his own will, but to defend with arms the needs of the realm imposed on him by the soldiers with divine approval and that it seemed no other will than the will of God in whose will victory was so incredible an event and none of his adversaries fell unless in battle, at length, Martin, overcome by reason or by prayers, came to a feast. The emperor rejoiced in an astonishing way because he gained his point. (4) Guests were present just as if they were called to a festival, the most important and illustrious men, the prefect and consul, Euodius, a man whom there was never any more just, and two companions who who held the utmost power: the brother and the uncle of the king. In the middle, a priest of Martin reclined among them, he himself had sat in a little chair placed next to the king. (5) At nearly the middle of the feast, as is the custom, the waiter offered a wine cup to the king. The king ordered it be given instead to the holy bishop, waiting on and courting him so that he might take the cup up from Martin's right hand. (6). But when Martin drank, he handed over the cup to his own priest, thinking, of course, that no one was more worthy to drink first after himself nor would it be fair if he prefered either the king himself or those who were nearest to the king. (7)This deed, the emperor and all those then present admired so that this very thing in which they were snubbed pleased them. It was very celebrated through the whole palace that Martin did at the king's dinner what none of the bishops did not do at the feasts of lesser judges. (8) Martin predicted long before what would happen to Maximus that, if he should go to Italy where he desired to go, waging war against Valentinian the empeor, he would know that he will the victor in the first attack, but, after a short time, he would die. (9) Indeed, we saw it happened in this way. For on Maximus' first approach, Valentinian turned to flight. Then, after almost a year, with his strength restored, he killed Maximus captured in the walls of Aquileia.


This passage is an interesting passage to historians in several ways. Any time that a philosopher or 'holy man' encounters an emperor, historians sit up and take notice because they know that there will be a clash of values or ideology which will unpack both imperial ideology and resistance to it. Yet, in the context of St. Martin's life, I want to highlight four features.

First, it is striking that Sulpicius makes every effort to downplay the importance of this encounter. He starts with a comment about adding less important things into the previous important one. Remember that Sulpicius has been talking about the miracles of St. Martin, so it looks like he is saying that the really important story are these miracles which, after all, are a demonstration of God's power through St. Martin. In turning to Martin's relations with Maximus, Sulpicius seems to be saying that the area of imperial politics dims in importance to these miracles. This is an example of the inversion of values which Christianity, at least, in its ideal sense tried to impose. This has been criticized as creating people who are 'too heavenly minded to be of earthly use', but I think this a little unfair. Needless to say, politics are important in the here and now, but, really, how important are they in the longer term that we Christians assume in affirming resurrection and eternal life.

Mind you, a less charitable critic might suggest that there is another reason why Sulpicius might be trying to minimize the importance of this incident. Magnus Maximus was, after all, a usurper, so even St. Martin's reluctant support might be considered as disloyalty to the surviving member of the Valentinian dynasty, Valentinian II. Perhaps Sulpicius is minimizing this episode and emphasizing Martin's effrontery to Maximus as a way to rehabilitate Martin's loyalty to Valentinian II. Perhaps. Yet, we have to remember that Maximus was an effective emperor in Gaul, Germany and Britain for five years, so it was only nature for Roman subjects in the region to accept that power, at least, de facto , if not de jure. This seems to be the sense that Sulpicius is presenting St. Martin's dealings with Maximus in conscious opposition to the actions of other, perhaps more worldy, bishops in the region, who saw a chance for imperial largess in backing Maximus.

Second, this passage is interesting in setting out what looks suspiciously the imperial apologia of Maximus for his actions against the emperors Gratian and Valentinian II. As in other sources, Maximus appears as a reluctant emperor, who was acclaimed by his own troops against his will. Having a keen sense of self-preservation, he seems to have gone along with it, but was as surprised as anyone when he defeated and killed the legitimate emperor, Gratian. Yet, the emphasis that these transactions were approved by God suggests that Maximus came to believe that he was supposed to have power. Given that Maximus was an unusually able usurper, connected to Theodosius I's father and his surviving rival was Valentinian II was twelve yers old, one could sympathize with his assumptions.

Third, St. Martin's dinner encounter with Maximus belongs to a literary commonplace in which the 'holy man' encounters the emperor or leading man. Common to this storyline, the 'holy man' has a tendency to insult the emperor and disregard his importance in the world as a salutary lesson in humility. Here St. Martin does just that, first in resisting Maximus' invitation so assiduously and, then, in the snub he gives Maximus around the handing of the cup. The gesture to hand the cup to the most important person at the banquet is, as Sulpicius indicates, a traditional one, so the meaning of handing off the cup to St. Martin would not be lost on anyone. Clearly, Maximus both wanted to honour the 'holy man' and wanted to be honoured by him, when St. Martin, presumably, returned the favour. He didn't, but rather passed the cup to a priest, suggesting that, in St. Martin's mind, the true hierarchy started with the ecclesiastical one and, only then, did the secular one come in. It is also striking that the snub only proved the status and importance of St. Martin. This is also common to this storyline when the emperor implies that the snub was appropriate. Of course, this is the sense of the storyline that the mighty were not so mighty after all, when compared to the spiritual power of the 'holy man'. Given Maximus' emphasis on the approval of God of his emperorship, he would be especially sensitive to the teachings of a 'holy man'.

In a sense, the model of St. Martin' behavior in this episode, however, should not be reduced to merely the stock 'holy man', who could be pagan or Christian or whatever. As with other similar incidents, I think that the model here is intended to be prophetic in that St. Martin confronts the political powers of the day with the kind of spiritual power which forces them to take notice and, for once, perhaps, respond with humility.

Lastly, we have St. Martin's prediction of Maximus' future demise. On one level, this is yet another demonstration of St. Martin' prophetic power; the ability to foresee the future. Now, for sceptical moderns, of course, we could presume that St. Martin had already figured out that dynastic loyalty to the Valentinian dynasty was was still strong and that the Emperor Theodosius II in the Eastern Empire had as much reason to back Valentinian II because his own infant son was his co-Emperor. Yet, I think that is retrojecting what we already know about what did happen. After all, Maximus did drive Valentinian II out of Italy and looked like he won the West completely, Who really knew that Theodosius would back Valentinian II against his father's protege and comrade? It could have gone either way and, given that it was Theodosius' intervention which proved decisive, how would St. Martin be so sure?

Of course, that is a moot point, if we presume that this report is merely Sulpicius building up Martin's reputation by introducing a 'fictional' story about this prediction. There is, really, no way of knowing whether this is a fictional story or not. Nor is that, precisely, the point. The problem that we are facing in this prediction is the same problem we've found throughout the miracle stories: a clash of worldviews which sees the 'scholarly' world looking to diminish the 'divine' and 'miraculous' elements of the story vs a Christian worldview which thinks the divine and miraculous may have happened. I don't know how we can mediate between these views, so I can only declare myself as willing to consider that the divine and miraculous can and could happen. If that means that some of my readers will dismiss what I have to say from here on, that is the way it going to have be then.


1 comment:

Maureen said...

Heh. Maxen Wledig's a legendary character himself. So that means the Roman Empire didn't exist, right?

Honestly, it's unscholarly even for atheists to assume that this and that didn't happen because they couldn't possibly happen naturally. Weird things happen all the time, and in our world they're relegated to the weird section of the paper instead of being written up as signs and wonders. But they do happen.

Of course, I don't think St. Martin was just some weirdness magnet. But that would at least be a reasonable position.